August 28, 2011

Why There Is No Conservative Jon Stewart

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In 2009, an animated sitcom entitled The Goode Family aired on ABC. The Goode Family was created by Mike Judge of Beavis and Butt-head fame, and followed the exploits of an ultra-liberal family as they attempted to fit into their community while still upholding their values.Have you heard of The Goode Family? If you haven’t, it’s hardly surprising. It was canceled after thirteen episodes due to low ratings, and an attempt to revive it on Comedy Central lasted only four weeks. What’s interesting about this is that it came directly on the heels of King of the Hill, Mike Judge’s previous animated sitcom. King of the Hill was extremely successful, running for twelve years and becoming something of a television institution. Why would The Goode Family fail where King of the Hill succeeded?  After all, they both have roughly the same creative team behind them and follow the same formula: low-key animated family comedies with elements of sociopolitical satire. They even have similar character dynamics, with fastidious, by-the-book father characters attempting to deal with their rebellious children. The answer lies in the main, glaring difference between the two shows: King of the Hill directs its satire at conservatives, while The Goode Family directs it at liberals.This is indicative of a phenomenon that can be seen wherever pop culture and politics intersect in America: Things that make fun of conservatives tend to do much better than things that make fun of liberals. Look at An American Carol, a 2008 film directed, written and produced by David Zucker, a Hollywood old hand responsible at least in part for such classic absurdist parodies as Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. An American Carol is a take-off on A Christmas Carol in which a thinly-veiled Michael Moore pastiche (complete with fat jokes a-plenty) is taught “the true meaning of America” by the ghosts of General George S. Patton and Presidents John F. Kennedy and George Washington. An American Carol was also a massive flop; it grossed a total of $7 million over all, failing to recoup its $20 million production budget. More damningly, this $7 million is close to only three percent of the gross earnings of Fahrenheit 911, a liberal documentary directed by the very object of An American Carol’s satire, Michael Moore. Right-wing satire just does not perform well at the box office.Intuitively, one wouldn’t expect this to be the case. As recent elections have shown us, the U.S. is fairly evenly split between liberals and conservatives, and the same sorts of entertainment tend to be available to everyone in the country. It should be true, then, that liberal-satirizing documentaries would do just as well as conservative-satirizing documentaries (albeit with a different audience). Yet this is not the case, and I think this has something to do with differences in American liberal and conservative mindsets. Modern liberals pride themselves on being activists, revolutionaries and agitators; they think of themselves as reformers and reorganizers. The goal of the modern American liberal is to take our current governmental, social and economic systems, dismantle them, and build better ones from their parts. As such, liberals respond well to irreverence, and irreverence is a key ingredient in satire. Liberals love the idea of mocking existing power structures — of “sticking it to the Man.” Therefore it only makes sense that things that lambaste liberals’ enemies, especially if those enemies happen to be in positions of power, would resonate with liberal audiences. In other words, liberal satire is successful because it reinforces left-wing self-conceptions. Conservatives, by contrast, are extremely reverent. Modern American conservatism is all about preserving the old ways and the old institutions of America, bringing America back to a time, real or imagined, when things were simpler and easier. This can be seen most easily in the religious wing of American conservatism; but even more libertarian conservatism, with its focus on limiting governmental power, often argues that the state is trying to intrude on beloved old local traditions and institutions. Conservatives, therefore, do not respond well to satire, even satire of their opponents. The very medium of satire, with its emphasis on deconstructive mockery, tends to fail with conservatives — who think of themselves as humble and traditionalist — since humility and respect for tradition are two values antithetical to satire.Conservative parody hasn’t been able to invade the world of pop-culture political satire because conservatives simply do not respond well to mockery — not only of themselves but of anyone. People connect well with things that reinforce their own beliefs about themselves, and the idea of satire goes directly against the conservative self-image.

Aidan Bonner ’13 is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Aidan Bonner